For this actor, no theatrical challenge can match Historical Interpretation

History Town 2 (Historical Interpreter) by Dirk Van Stralen

As I was leaving Barkerville this afternoon after my latest shift on “the street,” I overheard some grade ten students who had just attended the Early Justice School Program with our ‘Judge Begbie’ and our ‘Judge Brew’. “They were really good,” said one young lady to her classmate.

“That one judge reminded me of Benedict Cumberbatch,” said the other.

“They get really good actors here,” said their teacher. “Not just anyone can do it.”

My heart swelled to hear those students and their teacher, not only because they recognized the work of Barkerville’s historical interpreters, but also because they seemed to recognize that First-Person Historical Interpretation is a challenging – and specialized – theatre technique.

I have made my living as a performer and writer for nearly three decades, and I can say without hesitation that for me no acting challenge can match that of historical interpretation. Taking on the role of someone from our documented history is a mighty tall order when you consider the ethics of truthfully and authentically conveying another time period without allowing it to descend into caricature.  Add to that the responsibility of portraying a person who actually lived, a person who deserves to have his or her memory respected and honoured.

Now throw in the small fact of having to additionally know and comprehend more than a century’s worth of historical facts and figures, events and concepts. Toss in the need for basic performance skills such as vocal training (allowing us to speak and more often project to large, outdoor crowds for hours a day and months on end without straining or damaging our voices) and improvisation in role while interacting with the public, all the while using correct manners, etiquette, dialect and grammar appropriate for the era being interpreted.  We also need to be our own script writers a lot of the time, and often within the parameters of some very abstract space-time conventions.

Many theatre professionals who work as Barkerville interpreters have had long careers on the stage, or in film and television. Several have performed all over the world, and almost all of us have extensive acting training. Others may have less formal schooling or less diversified resumes, but they have been historical interpreters for a very long time, and have spent years honing and mastering this very specific craft.  Every season we welcome to the site a few novice interpreters, of course, who have the great opportunity to learn and grow alongside veterans.

No matter what our backgrounds are, however, our job as Barkerville interpreters is to make you – the visitor – forget all the hard work that goes into the preparation of our performances so that we can get on with doing what we are here to do: interpret our collective history in a manner that is engaging, memorable, entertaining and educational.

So, thank you. Thank you to all of you who – like those two students and one teacher I overheard this evening – take a minute to consider and appreciate what it is we do in Barkerville. It makes the hours spent soldiering on in pounding rainstorms or pretending to be comfortable in six layers of clothing on hot days or trying to project our voices over the roaring of the spring thaw filled creek, all the more worthwhile. We love our jobs, and we appreciate it so much when you value what we do.

– Danette Boucher

The above one-panel cartoon (originally published May 24th, 2014) by Dirk Van Stralen, with accompanying editorial by Danette Boucher, is the second of twenty weekly entries that were logged – and subsequently blogged – as part of a 2014 collaboration between Barkerville, British Columbia and the Prince George Citizen aimed at introducing some of the quirkier advantages to living, working, and playing in the Cariboo Goldfields. We hope you enjoy!